Party over Prestige? The Preakness Stakes Has an Identity Crisis

Party over Prestige? The Preakness Stakes Has an Identity Crisis article feature image

Mitch Stringer, USA Today Sports.

  • The Preakness Stakes may move from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to Laurel Park in Washington, D.C.
  • Sean Zerillo was at Pimlico for the 2019 Preakness and wonders what the best course of action is for the second leg of the Triple Crown.

BALTIMORE — Other than for set changes the party – and especially the bass – never stops at InfieldFest at Pimlico Race Course. Not even when the races prior to the Preakness Stakes are going to post on the track.

The thudding, relentless bass seemed to pulse like a repeated shockwave in each and every direction, but it could also pierce through the deepest fibers of your being no matter your location relative to the main stage. It could be felt inside of your car in the parking lot.

In the midst of planning out multi-race wagers and single race tickets, it was easy to miss races entirely while temporarily tuning out the blaring noise from the concert.

It is a wonder how the horses running the races must feel about all of the infield commotion.

Besides the betting windows, there is just one screen in the infield for viewing the races; slightly behind and to the right of the main stage crowd. It was a low definition feed, so you could barely see the saddlecloth numbers on the horses to begin with, and the video blipped in and out quite often.

If one spent the whole day directly in the concert crowd, they could have gone the entire day without seeing a single horse. And they would have heard ‘Old Town Road’ three times.

At the end of Logic’s set, about 20 minutes before the Preakness went to post, the jam-packed crowd dispersed before they could be closed off from crossing out of the infield and over the main track.

People were prepared to trample over horses if necessary both coming in and going out, ignoring instructions to wait for thoroughbreds who were merely passing by in close quarters:

The previously raucous stage area was now completely empty, save for the water bottles, beer cans, and other trash trampled into the ground by dancing feet.

The average age in the infield immediately rose by an estimated 15-20 years.

Few go to InfieldFest for the races, most are there for the party; and the rest are there either to witness the madness or because the tickets are less expensive than a grandstand seat.

But the party no longer has the financial support that it needs in order to sustain itself.

Pimlico Race Course is failing. There’s only a dozen race dates scheduled at Pimlico for this season, compared with over 200 dates scheduled at nearby Laurel Park; which is owned by the same company, the Stronach Group.

Pimlico is America’s second-oldest racecourse and hosts an event that is supposed to be an American tradition, but it exudes very little prestige.

The infield betting windows look like sad carnival games from a distance, and are somehow worse up close – and the tellers at those windows mostly seem to be learning their jobs on the fly.

It was far easier to partake in mobile wagering through a licensed mobile application than it was to go up to the window at Pimlico even just to collect for a winning ticket; the process was that slow.

I’m certain that more knowledgeable tellers were placed at locations with more affluent clientele, but at the same time there is a need for this sport to make itself more relatable to amateur bettors.

If you don’t trust the banker in a game of monopoly, all hell breaks loose – it’s the same thing if you don’t trust that the teller is giving you the correct return on your wager in a horse race.

Failures in the infield weren’t limited to just the wagering front. Lines at concessions for food and drink were ridiculously long; mostly due to power failures. Entire rows of vendors lost power simultaneously, creating massive delays.

At the stuffed pretzel tent employees desperately offered up already prepared pepperoni pizza  and mac ‘n’ cheese pretzels to hungry customers to no avail. It said “Buffalo Chicken Pretzels” on the sign, the hook that had spiked the initial demand, and the people weren’t budging despite the stuffed-pretzelmakers giving them the hard sell on other options.

Outrage swept through the lines as delays only grew longer.

Each time I went to the sea of porta-potties, I wondered why the ground was wet in only those specific areas. I was far less comforted by knowing that it hadn’t rained recently.

Getting into InfieldFest is an adventure in and of itself, but the dichotomy of expectations and attitudes of all those attending is immediately apparent.

Attire ranges from “Kentucky Derby threads,” to, “basic preppy” to, “yacht rock” to, “Coachella” to, “I covered myself in enough material to legally enter.”

The groups of “bros” at the Preakness are larger in number but younger in age than the similar groups of Derby “bros”. They were all lively, and likely the drunkest and loudest friend groups at the Preakness; singing drinking songs or shouting out their local sports teams in unison.

Those waiting on line to get to InfieldFest were particularly concerned with their lack of sunblock foresight. In eighty-plus degree heat with mostly clear skies, the sun was going to be ravenous on pale skin of all kinds after a long winter.

Pending dehydration, sunburn, and loss of phone battery were the largest looming threats. Though there was a tent at InfieldFest were you could specifically rent or buy portable phone batteries, numerous attendees were ultimately left stranded in the parking lot with dead phones – offering cash to strangers to pay for a ride to their desired locations in or around Baltimore.

Leaving the parking lot took almost an hour, but waiting for a rideshare likely took far longer. There is no mass public transportation to Pimlico, one of many reasons why it’s probably time for the modern era to catch up with tradition and to move the race somewhere more accessible.

There should be one more Preakness at Pimlico before the race moves to Laurel Park in 2021.

Grandstand seating is boarded up, restrooms don’t work, and the Stronach Group is investing all of its money in Laurel Park at the expense of Pimlico.

The city of Baltimore has sued to turn over the track to the public on the grounds of condemnation.

In a perfect world, the city could assume the land from Stronach and turn it into a park and grounds for music festivals, and the Preakness Stakes could either move to Laurel Park or Gulfstream Park in Florida (one of Stronach’s other properties).

Either way it’s time for a change, and time to put the prestige back in the second jewel of the Triple Crown.